Last week some of us jetted to New York to attend BookExpo America, the largest publishing conference and trade show in the U.S., to talk to folks in the industry about how they can use 99designs to get great book cover designs.

John Englander with 99designs’ Jessica Hill
John Englander with 99designs’ Jessica Hill; his book cover design by kunoichi23.

We were thrilled by the many authors who stopped by our booth to say hello and show us the book covers they’d designed through 99designs – like oceanographer John Englander, whose self-published book, High Tide on Main Street, received rave reviews from the likes of Publishers Weekly.

“I still Skype every so often with my cover designer, Kata, who lives in Budapest,” Englander told us, adding that the designer submitted an exciting and unexpected idea midway through his contest that immediately caught his eye.

Time and time again attendees told us that with the rise of ebooks, a fantastic book cover design is more important than ever – without a compelling thumbnail image to catch the attention of online buyers, sales simply don’t happen.

To find out how to score a book cover design that stops traffic – or, more accurately, drives it – we decided to ask authors who ran book cover design contests on 99designs.

Here’s what nine of them had to say:

undaunted: five true stories from world war II
Book cover design by Portugal

1. Think like a reader, not like a writer

“Cover images and text must be clearly understood as thumbnails, which is how more books are being sold today.

“If you cannot discern the image or read the text in the size it would be shown on one of the online bookstores, like Amazon or Kobo, then the reader won’t be able to, either.

“Covers need to make a reader ‘feel’ something rather than ‘tell’ them something.”

— J. Pepper Bryars
Author of Undaunted: Five True Stories from World War II

2. Think of your cover as a key piece of a puzzle

god of burden book
Book cover design by Ed.davad

“Writing a book, to me, is like solving a 10,000 piece puzzle, blind-folded. After writing it, the final piece of this puzzle is to find the design that will get the attention of the customers you want.

I believe really well written feedback is essential to getting the design you are working for. I checked the design process frequently for the whole week and gave feedback almost non-stop.”

— Dennis Tabor
Author of God of Burden.

be your own boyfriend book
Book cover design by komandog

3. Nail your audience

“In order to know what the book cover should be like, you have to think about the audience.

“I spoke with my young, female interns in order to learn about my target audience: not too girlish, but sassy and interesting. I also looked around my hometown of Austin, Texas, a very tattooed city, for inspiration.

“I wanted a juxtaposition of profane and in-your-face, but kind of cute.”

— Kaneisha Grayson
Author of Be Your Own Boyfriend

4. Avoid clichés

Book cover design by RJHAN

“Although my book is about finance, it’s a unique and personal book, and I wanted this conveyed through its cover. I didn’t want it to feature dollar bills or piggy banks or any of that cliché stuff. I made sure to convey this message to the designers in my brief.”

— Jim Miller
Author of Budgeting Doesn’t Have to Suck

5. Stick to your key message – and write it down

Book cover design by Ranooshka
Book cover design by Ranooshka

“Write down what the point of your book is and then have that sentence in front of you as your guide when you review your cover submissions. There were many book cover designs I was fond of, but they just didn’t convey the right message.”

— Audrey Cavenecia
Author of The Alcohol Diet

6. Make your readers feel something

nameless book cover
Book cover design by PINTADO

“Since Nameless was released I’ve had many readers tell me that they were first reeled in because of the cover. I chose the design I felt best captured the dark nature of the story.

“It was my intention for the cover to convey a feeling that would target those readers who would be interested in an FBI vs. serial murderer thriller novel like Nameless. I wanted it to reach out and grab the people who love to have the wits scared out of them.”

— Joe Conlan
Author of Nameless

the universe wide web
Book cover design by line14

7. Stay open-minded

“Give the designers all the information they may need. Describe the audience you’re aiming at, the style of the book (adventure, romance, thriller, etc.), the period it’s set in, the mood, as well as important characters or moments.

“But don’t expect the design you finish with to be what you had in mind when you started—designers will, and should, surprise you and take you somewhere new.”

— Simon Morley
Author of The Universe Wide Web


8. Use social media to get input from fans – and listen!

Book cover design by dapicon

“My presence on social media was a major factor in my decision to self-publish my book. When I couldn’t really decide on which cover to choose, I asked my few thousand followers on Facebook and Twitter for their advice, opened a poll, and let them decide.

“After all, it’s my fans – my audience – that matters. So I listened to them.”

— Federico Pistono
Author of Robots Will Steal Your Job But That’s Ok

9. Use your first contest to find the perfect designer for future books

Book covers designed by Harry Hyatt

“I ran a contest for my first book, Your Guide to Visit Paris for Free. So for my second book, Your Guide to Visit San Francisco for Free, instead of organizing another contest I directly hired the designer of my first book cover, Harry Hyatt, through 99designs’ 1-to-1 platform.

“The second time around, the designer knows you, and is aware of what you like, and what you do not like. You can create your second cover in no time compared to the first.”

— Lydie Thomas
Author of Your Guide to Visit Paris for Free and Your Guide to Visit San Francisco for Free

What are your tips for getting the perfect book cover design. Please share in the comments!